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Find more Books and Authors: Talking with Rita Williams-Garcia
The unforgettable Gaither sisters captivate readers in William-Garcia’s multi-award-winning novels, set in the tumultuous late 1960s.
Set in 1968, Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer (2010) takes three sisters from Brooklyn, where they live with their father and grandmother, to Oakland, California, to meet Cecile, the mother they don’t remember. While in California, the Gaither sisters are thrust into the social movements of the 1960s, and by the time they return home, they have even won a small piece of their mother’s heart. One Crazy Summer was nominated for the 2010 National Book Award for Young People. In 2011, it was named a Newbery Honor Book, a Coretta Scott King Author Award winner, and the Scott O’Dell Historical Fiction Award winner.
The Gaither girls are not the only ones who have changed while visiting Cecile. In P.S. Be Eleven(2013), also a multi-award winner, the girls return home to find their father engaged to Marva Hendrix, and their grandmother, Big Ma, feels a little less needed. Even more unsettling, Uncle Darnell returns from the Vietnam War a broken man and moves in with the Gaithers. Delphine deals with these changes by writing long letters to Cecile, who advises her oldest daughter to just “be eleven.”
In the following conversation, the celebrated author discusses the creation of her indelible characters and the challenges of setting personal stories within a tumultuous period in U.S. history.
BKL: Your books are character driven. Who or what was your inspiration for Cecile?
WILLIAMS-GARCIA: I loved writing Cecile. She is an amalgam of sorts. My mother, “Miss Essie,” is probably the prototype for all strong characters in my stories. She was a force that no one wanted to reckon with—not even doctors and attendees in her final days. She was very creative, expressive, funny, and kind, but she could be volatile. We had a great childhood, but it wasn’t always easy. I thought a lot about female artists of the period while writing Cecile—women with children who struggled to incorporate art and motherhood, and also women who chose to be childless. I returned to my favorite poets of the 1960s, such as Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, and June Jordan, and I looked at the lives of the women in the Black Panther movement. I knew I would never have Cecile apologize, even at the risk of having her misunderstood or not liked by readers. There are reasons why she cannot be with her children, and I respect them all.
BKL: Some writers say that they connect with young readers because they have total recall of their childhood. What part of your childhood is woven into the Gaither girls’ story?
WILLIAMS-GARCIA: I grew up in the same time period and remember so much, but it’s my relationship with my siblings that I drew from. We were 13 months apart and did everything together. My older brother, Russell, and I fought all the time, and our older sister, Rosalind, maintained order. We were great planners and were forever setting off on adventures. It was always understood that we were to mind Rosalind, and we did. Mostly.
BKL: With which character do you most identify?
WILLIAMS-GARCIA: That’s tough. Like Delphine, I was a boy fighter and word lover who spun straw whenever an explanation was needed. Like Vonetta, I was both stagestruck and had bouts of stage fright. I was always in my own little world like Fern, but I wasn’t as cute.
BKL: I have a soft spot in my heart for Pa, because he thinks it is important that his girls know their mother. How does he know that this is the right time for them to meet her?
WILLIAMS-GARCIA: Coming out of this era, Pa would have felt there were things that only a mother can teach her daughters. With Delphine growing in every possible way, and her sisters not too far behind her, he might have felt the urgency for the girls to know their mother. I like to think that Pa saw bits of Cecile in his daughters and that they should at least fill the void with the actual person—crazy and all. He knew Delphine would one day explain Cecile to Vonetta and Fern, even if he couldn’t. Plus, now that they were no longer babies, and that Delphine could keep her sisters in line, Cecile would be able to tolerate them for a short period. Yes, tolerate. He hoped for the best for mother and daughters—that they would fill in some of those hard-to-fill spaces.
BKL: What do you hope your readers learn from Delphine?
WILLIAMS-GARCIA: I hope Delphine confirms for my readers how love of family is both basic and complicated, and that this is all right. Some of my readers must learn to insist on their childhoods in spite of their circumstances, while most, I hope, will value and enjoy their childhoods. Thankfully, I had a long childhood. Not everyone can say that, especially Delphine.
BKL: As much as Big Ma provides a stable home for the Gaither sisters, I really like that they get a stepmother in P.S. Be Eleven. How does Marva allow the girls to grow in ways that Big Ma would never allow?
WILLIAMS-GARCIA: Delphine sees college girls packing up their Volkswagen Beetle with a NOW sticker on the bumper—a little heads-up that women’s liberation was headed to Herkimer Street. Pa and Big Ma have done the best that they could, but only Marva can challenge traditions of the past. Marva believes women can accomplish anything if they put their minds to it, and although the message is new, it isn’t lost on the Gaither sisters. As much as Marva Hendrix challenges tradition, she also challenges Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern to shake things up a bit. It means Delphine must give up some of her control, especially if her sisters are to grow. Thanks to Marva, the Gaither girls will be wearing jeans and Afro puffs before Big Ma can say “Grand Negro spectacle.”
BKL: You were only 11 years old in 1968 when One Crazy Summer is set. What do you remember about that year?
WILLIAMS-GARCIA: What a dynamic year, 1968! I have my diary from 1967 through 1968, and I remember so much, including the clothes that I wore, my friends, the books that I read, my favorite and least favorite homework assignments, my science-fair projects, the games we played, and Friday-afternoon catechism. I also remember seeing Vietnam on the living-room television and writing letters to my dad. I remember my mother’s work with the Anti-Poverty Program and seeing Dr. Martin Luther King marching, also on TV. It was the year my father returned from Vietnam, and we went to hear Senator Kennedy speak at Monterey Airport. I remember King’s assassination, then Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, and the manhunts following each one. I remember war protestors shouting at my father when he was in uniform and him saying, “That’s what I’m fighting for—your right to say what you want to say.” I remember “Happening ’68,” and a parade of pop stars, but I especially remember the first time I heard James Brown on the radio singing, “Say it Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
BKL: How is your child’s-eye view different from what you later read about the era?
WILLIAMS-GARCIA: As a child, my eyes and ears were open. I wanted to know what was going on, whether my parents were whispering about relatives who were involved in the cause, or whether I was watching the Black Panthers on David Susskind’s or David Frost’s shows. I read Eldridge Cleaver’s A Soul on Ice and Jason Epstein’s The Trial of Bobby Seale and had thought Angela Davis and George Jackson were part of a Black Panther love story. As a child, I had romanticized ideals of the movement but was afraid of the movement at the same time. As an adult, I think more of how the movement had been broken down and how it ultimately imploded. Although the romanticized parts have been washed away, I still believe the movement was at its best when it was a grassroots organization that looked out for the rights of poor and working-class communities.
BKL: Do you know how your novels will end when you begin writing?
WILLIAMS-GARCIA: I always know how my novels will end before I start. That’s the only way I can begin the journey. Then, somewhere during the journey, the characters overrule me. Or a plot thread doesn’t pan out. Or the first draft is too weak to support the ending. Or, more than likely, I learn something I didn’t know when I began and have to regroup. Endings are hard, but endings are the litmus test for the promise of the novel. You know when you’ve struck that resonating chord. You also know when it’s a tad flat. And if you don’t know, that’s when your editor takes you by the hand and asks you to look at the ending again.
BKL: You have said that you don’t like dealing with racial issues in your novels. How do your books transcend race?
WILLIAMS-GARCIA: Race is complex. It isn’t as black and white as resolving an issue between black people and white people. I have a disdain for books that treat race in that simplistic way. As with One Crazy Summer and P.S. Be Eleven, people of color, specifically African-Americans, have much to confront in just dealing with our own outlook based on institutionalized racism and personal and familial experience. It is a leviathan that I won’t pretend I can wrap up in a book. But I can write from a place of truth inherent within the characters. For example, my young black male protagonists (including Thulani in Every Time a Rainbow Dies) know what a patrol car or police officer could mean. Racism is part of the American fabric. It’s in the air. Even when my characters are not fully conscious of it, they’re still breathing the air.
What readers connect to in the stories is that, at their core, they are human stories, first and foremost. I can include dozens of icons, events, historical figures, and slogans from the period, but it’s always that Delphine is doing a hard, thankless job that makes readers root for her. It’s that the readers are drawn in by these funny sisters who so badly want a mother but are sorely disappointed and afraid when they meet Cecile. The readers simply care for the characters, identify with their yearnings, and can laugh with and at them. We’ve all wanted to impress someone and to be loved and know that we are special. We all know how it feels to fail no matter what we do, or to feel strong in a small body. These are all things we know as humans.
BKL: The pacing and tone of your writing are brilliant. You provide humor in just the right spots. Is it more difficult to write poignant scenes or humorous ones?
WILLIAMS-GARCIA: I think the humorous scenes are harder. Humor requires timing and a knack for what’s funny. The humor works when it springs out of characters being themselves in tense situations. But, honestly, I die like a Borscht Belt comic doing Def Comedy Jam when I try to write funny. Just die. Poignant scenes . . . those are special. Quiet. They have to ring true and have an air of inevitability with the right amount of surprise or wonder.
BKL: What has been the response from young readers to One Crazy Summer and P.S. Be Eleven?
WILLIAMS-GARCIA: I can’t begin to tell you how tremendous the reactions from the readers have been. I hear from girls and boys, teachers, librarians, parents, grandparents who remember those times, reluctant readers—you name it! My favorite responses come from those who are sharing this story within their families across generations, and those who pick up the book by accident. The response has been so tremendous that I’ve written a final story about the Gaither family called Gone Crazy in Alabama. It’s so hard to say good-bye to characters I know like family!
BKL: What might Delphine say about all the awards One Crazy Summer has received?
WILLIAMS-GARCIA: Delphine might say, “I don’t dare tell Vonetta about all those medals. She’ll claim all the credit for being ‘the crazy one’ in One Crazy Summer.” Big Ma would want to have a word with me for airing the family business in a book for all to read.
BKL: You have written for almost every age. Which is your favorite age? Or do you let the story dictate the audience?
WILLIAMS-GARCIA: I have a story that’s begging me to write it, and that determines the audience. I’m enjoying writing middle-grade fiction. These readers ask the best questions and wear their loves and dislikes openly. The stories matter deeply to them. This is not to say I won’t write for teens again. I’ll be back one day.
BKL: How are today’s children’s books different from the ones that you read as a child?
WILLIAMS-GARCIA: The children’s books I read in my childhood had a storybook quality to them. I always knew I was reading a story that was being told to me by someone else, and, truthfully, those stories—by C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, Scott O’Dell, and Reba Paef Mirsky— transported me to another place. But today’s narratives for children are a lot closer to the heart and sensibilities of a child. The writers get down in the trenches of what a child thinks and how she expresses herself.
BKL: Is there a particular novel that kids read today that you would have devoured at age 10 or 11?
WILLIAMS-GARCIA: I loved stories and comic books and female protagonists. I would have devoured Adam Rex’s The True Meaning of Smeck Day like it was a crunchy bowl of cereal. Second-grade Rita would have read Nikki Grimes’ Words with Wings over and over. How that book would have affirmed my need to drift away—which always infuriated my brother and sister! I usually got my call to daydream during kickball games.
BKL: What advice do you give writing students about writing for children?
WILLIAMS-GARCIA: Love the characters more than you love the concept. The concept is there to challenge the writer to break new ground, but the characters should live in the hearts and minds of young readers, long after the last pages have been read.
BKL: What are you writing now?
WILLIAMS-GARCIA: I’ve finished Gone Crazy in Alabama, but I still think about the Gaithers, Trotters, and Charleses every day. It’s just so hard to say good-bye. But I have to admit, I’ve been surrounded by female voices for so long, a change is in order. I’m writing a kind of easy reader about a boy who loses his grandfather. It’s called Clayton Byrd Goes Underground. At this point, I have to stop calling it an easy reader, although I’m hoping my reluctant readers will sail through it. If I do it right, this small novel will be the place where hip-hop meets the blues. Wish me luck!
Every Time a Rainbow Dies. 2001. 176p. HarperCollins, e-book, $8.99 (9780061923111). Gr. 9–12.
Gone Crazy in Alabama. Apr. 2015. 304p. Amistad, $16.99 (9780062215871); lib. ed., $17.89 (9780062215888); e-book, $9.99 (9780062215901). Gr. 4–8.
Jumped. 2009. 192p. Amistad, paper, $8.99 (9780060760939); e-book, $6.99 (9780061975714). Gr. 9–12.
Like Sisters on the Homefront. 1995. 176p. Puffin, paper, $5.99 (9780140385618). Gr. 8–12.
No Laughter Here. 2003. 144p. Amistad, e-book, $6.99 (9780061975752). Gr. 4–8.
One Crazy Summer. 2010. 224p. Amistad, $15.99 (9780060760885); paper, $6.99 (9780060760908); lib. ed., $16.89 (9780060760892); e-book, $6.99 (9780061966675). Gr. 4–7.
P.S. Be Eleven. 2013. 288p. Amistad, $16.99 (9780061938627); paper, $6.99 (9780061938641); lib. ed., $17.89 (9780061938634); e-book, $10.99 (9780062208507). Gr. 4–7.
Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer (2010) and its sequels celebrate the societal changes brought about by the turbulent 1960s. Book Links has explored this important decade in recent issues (most recently in the September 2014 issue, which included the bibliography “Freedom Summer Book Connections”). The focus of the following list is on family connections, rather than historical ones. In the books below, the main characters, like the Gaither girls, are in search of a parent they have never really known.
Enrique’s Journey: The True Story of a Boy Determined to Reunite with His Mother. By Sonia Nazario. 2013. 288p. Delacorte, $16.99 (9780385743273); paper, $8.99 (9780385743280); lib. ed., $19.99 (9780375991042); e-book, $8.99 (9780307983152). 973. Gr. 7–10.
This true story of Enrique, a Honduran boy whose mother left when he was very young in search of a better life in the U.S., chronicles his many attempts to find his mother. He is 17 when he and his mother are finally reunited, but the years apart have taken a toll on their relationship.
The Higher Power of Lucky. By Susan Patron. Illus. by Matt Phelan. 2006. 144p. Atheneum/Richard Jackson, $17.99 (9781416901945); paper, $6.99 (9781416975571); e-book, $6.99 (9781416953951). Gr. 4–7.
After Lucky’s mother dies, her father abandons her and calls upon his ex-wife, Brigitte, to come from France to the small desert town of Hard Pan, California, to take care of his daughter. At 10 years old, Lucky longs for a real mother, and as her story progresses through two sequels, Lucky Breaks (2009) and Lucky for Good (2011), she ponders the question: Does her father really hate her?
It Ain’t All for Nothin’. By Walter Dean Myers. 2003. 240p. Amistad, paper, $6.99 (9780064473118); e-book, $6.99 (9780061975004). Gr. 7–12.
Tippy lives with his grandmother in Harlem, but when she becomes ill, he must go and live with his father, a man he barely knows. His dad isn’t interested in being a father, and Tippy is placed in a situation where he must decide whether to take the path toward right or wrong.
Journey. By Patricia MacLachlan. 1991. 112p. Yearling, paper, $5.99 (9780440408093). Gr. 3–7.
Eleven-year-old Journey and his sister, Cat, are abandoned by their mother, and it is up to their grandparents to help them deal with the fact that she may never return. Journey holds out hope, but eventually he accepts what he cannot fix.
The Search for Belle Prater. By Ruth White. 2005. 176p. Square Fish, paper, $6.99 (9781250008138); e-book, $4.98 (9781429934503). Gr. 4–7.
In this sequel to Newbery Honor Book Belle Prater’s Boy (1996), Woodrow Prater has lived with his grandparents in rural Virginia since his mother, Belle Prater, disappeared more than a year ago. On his thirteenth birthday, Woodrow believes that he has received a message from his missing mother, and he sets out to find her.
Somewhere in the Darkness. By Walter Dean Myers. 1992. 176p. Scholastic, paper, $5.99 (9780545055772). Gr. 7–12.
Jimmy Little is motherless, and his father has been in prison since he was a baby, but he has a stable home life in Harlem with Mama Jean, his loving and devoted grandmother. Then, when he is 14, his very ill father escapes and sets out to prove his innocence to his son. In this Newbery Honor Book, Jimmy, in a fit of anger, tells his dad, “You don’t know anything about being a father.”
Sway. By Amber McRee Turner. 2012. 320p. Hyperion, paper, $6.99 (9781423137849). Gr. 4–6.
Ten-year-old Cass has been dreaming of the day that her mother would come home, but after four long months, it appears that her mom is nowhere near ready to return. In the meantime, Cass and her dad set off on a trip in an old RV and form a father-daughter bond that includes a little magic called “sway.”
True Colors. By Natalie Kinsey-Warnock. 2012. 256p. Knopf, $15.99 (9780375860997); paper, $6.99 (9780375854538); e-book, $6.99 (9780375897061). Gr. 4–6.
In 1952 in Vermont, 10-year-old Blue, abandoned as a baby, sets out to find the mother she has never known. Along the way, she also finds out life-changing things about herself.
Zane and the Hurricane: A Story of Katrina. By Rodman Philbrick. 2014. 192p. Scholastic/Blue Sky, $16.99 (9780545342384); e-book, $16.99 (9780545633475). Gr. 5–8.
Twelve-year-old Zane Dupree doesn’t know much about his father, who died before he was born, but his mother decides that it is time he meets Miss Trissy, his father’s grandmother, in New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina hits the city not too long after Zane arrives, and as he struggles to survive among people he barely knows, he hears boyhood stories about his father and finally makes a connection to the Dupree side of his family.
The following are suggestions for implementing the Common Core State Standards with Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer and P.S Be Eleven. You can find more information about the standards at www.corestandards.org.
In the Classroom: Lead a discussion of One Crazy Summer and/or P.S. Be Eleven with any of the following questions.
Big Mama thinks that Cecile is selfish. What is the girls’ first impression of Cecile in One Crazy Summer? How do they view her by the end of the summer?
What is the main theme of One Crazy Summer? At what point in the novel is the theme first apparent? Debate whether the theme changes in PS. Be Eleven. Quote directly from the novels to support claims.
In PS. Be Eleven, Delphine says that Cecile is their mother, but she isn’t a mom. Discuss the difference. What qualities might each girl want in a mom? Discuss whether Marva Hendrix can be the mom the girls are searching for.
Why does Delphine need her mother’s advice more than Vonetta and Fern? Discuss Cecile’s advice to Delphine, “P.S. Be Eleven.”
Have students explain the following quote from P.S. Be Eleven: “Twelve makes you know better than to wish for things that only eleven would wish hard for.”
All novels have a conflict. What is the conflict in Williams-Garcia’s novels? The climax is the turning point in the novel. Identify the climax of each novel.
Common Core Connections
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5–6.1. Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5–6.2. Determine a theme of a story; summarize the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5–6.3. Compare and contrast two or more characters, settings, or events in a story.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5–6.5. Explain how a series of chapters fits together to provide the overall structure of a novel.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.5–6.1. Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade level topics and texts, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.5–6.3. Summarize the points a speaker makes and explain how each claim is supported by reasons and evidence.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.5–6.6. Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, using formal English when appropriate to task and situation.
In the Classroom: Rita Williams-Garcia frequently uses similes to create certain images. For example, in One Crazy Summer, she writes, “Vonetta and Fern stamped their feet like holy rollers at a revival meeting.” Ask readers to find other examples of simile in the Gaither sisters novels. Then have them write a simile that best describes Delphine’s first impression of Miss Marva Hendrix, Pa’s fiancée.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5–6.4. Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative language such as metaphors and similes.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.5–6.5. Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.
In the Classroom: Lead a class discussion about the most humorous scenes in One Crazy Summer and P.S. Be Eleven. Then divide readers into small groups and ask them to write one of the scenes as a stage comedy. Cast the play, and perform it.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W. 5–6.3. Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear, even sequences.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W. 5–6.4. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development and organization are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
In the Classroom: Instruct readers to jot down everything that they learned about the 1960s from reading One Crazy Summer and P.S. Be Eleven. Then have them use books in the library or sites on the Internet to conduct further research on one of the topics (e.g., the Black Panthers) and write a one-page entry for an encyclopedia of the 1960s.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.5–6.2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.5–6.7. Conduct short research projects that use several sources to build knowledge through investigation or different aspects of a topic.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.5–6.9. Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
After more than 35 years as a school librarian, Pat Scales is a freelance writer and children’s literature advocate and the author of the revised edition of Books under Fire: A Hit List of Banned and Challenged Children’s Books (2014).
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